Holland Clamps Down on Drugs

In Amsterdam the Psilocybe cubensis has become a regular on the menu of stimulants offered to visitors. The "magic mushroom," as it is more commonly known, has a lot going for it. It's cheap, it's organic, and upon consumption the coolest things happen to you: dustbins turn into green dragons, trees turn into vertical lines, and faces take on funny shapes. Yet the mushroom's biggest asset in the Netherlands is that it's legal. Just drop by one of Amsterdam's so-called "smart shops," with self-explanatory names such as Euphoria, Conscious Dreams or Altered State. For less than 20 bucks popular brands like Philosopher's Stone or the Golden Teacher will give you a mesmerizing evening.

Holland's fungus fantasy, however, could soon be over. Last week the Dutch health minister proposed a total ban on the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Netherlands. If the government has its way, which is very likely, the mushroom will become an illegal drug within a few months. The ban will almost certainly spell the end of an industry that has been flourishing in Holland since the mid '90s, forcing the majority of smart shops to start selling wooden shoes or Delft Blue pottery. But it also, some argue, heralds the end of the country's world-famous lenient drug policy.

Until recently Holland regarded psychoactive mushrooms as a relatively harmless intoxicator. A recent report by a government health agency called the magic fungi "no peril to public health" and saw no reason for a ban. This past year, however, Amsterdam was shaken by a number of incidents involving mushrooms. In March a 17-year-old French high-school student killed herself by jumping off a building. In July a panic-stricken tourist from Iceland plunged out of his hotel window (surviving, but ruining both his legs). Some weeks earlier, a heavily intoxicated Briton gave his hotel room a complete trashing (badly injuring himself in the process).

"Mushrooms may not be as harmful as cocaine or heroin, but we simply shouldn't take the risk of selling this stuff," says Ed Anker, an MP for the conservative ChristenUnie party who supports the ban. "I don't want to sit around waiting for another casualty."

Users and sellers of mushrooms are outraged by the ban. Paul van Oyen, a spokesman for the national association of smart shop owners, calls the government's decision "narrow-minded," adding, "The health secretary has lost his sanity." Although Amsterdam's approximately 40 smart shops don't trade only in mushrooms (most of them also sell energy drinks, aphrodisiacs and substances said to be herbal equivalents to synthetic drugs like ecstasy and LSD), they fear the end of their business. A hastily opened Web site called "Save the Mushroom" claims to have received more than 25,000 supporting e-mails in just one week.

It's not just Dutch mushroom aficionados who are up in arms. Many drug experts lament the government's decision as well. August de Loor, an independent addiction consultant in Amsterdam, warns of a shift to illegal drugs that are much more dangerous. "Right now the authorities have the possibility of monitoring the use of mushrooms," he says. "If people turn to the black market for their mushroom fix, they will also be tempted to buy stuff like LSD and GHB." This has been the crux of Dutch drug policy over the last 35 years: regulation instead of suppression, harm reduction instead of prohibition. Mushrooms have been legal, and while marijuana is technically illegal, the authorities have tolerated the purchase and use of small amounts. The government has dispensed clean needles for heroin users in some cities and, for a brief time, even offered free testing of ecstasy pills at dance parties.

Opponents of the ban point to something else too: a bad mushroom trip is almost exclusively a tourist experience. According to local health authorities, 92 percent of mushroom trippers gone astray between 2004 and 2006 were foreigners (Britain tops the list, with America coming in third). This is due to a new kind of tourism: young people who come to Amsterdam on a cheap flight just for the weekend. For three days they indulge themselves in heavy smoking and drinking, with a couple of mushrooms for dessert—often ending up in the hospital. (All of this summer's three victims had also used large amounts of marijuana and alcohol; the French girl reportedly had a history of depression.)

"After a ban, the number of tourist accidents will surely plummet," says smart shop spokesman van Oyen. "Yet local people enjoying a mushroom every now and then without any problems will have to suffer."

The mushroom ban fits into a wider crackdown on Holland's lenient soft-drug policy. For more than three decades the Dutch state has tolerated the purchase and use of marijuana. But after reaching its peak in 2000, when tens of thousands of European soccer hooligans smoked their way through a peaceful European Cup, the Dutch drug gospel is starting to lose strength. Holland's world-famous "coffee shops" are facing ever more restrictions. Over the last decade their number has dropped by 40 percent. This spring the city of Rotterdam announced it would shut down all shops within a 270-yard radius of schools. In Maastricht people attending a coffee shop are obliged to leave their fingerprints, so as to prevent underage persons from buying pot.

With a socially conservative government in office since the beginning of this year, this process is only speeding up. A countrywide smoking ban (covering marijuana, too) will take effect in July 2008, likely degrading the coffee shops to mere selling counters. Last year Holland's health secretary even predicted the end of the Dutch exception. "The image of Holland as extremely tolerant toward drugs is less and less in keeping with reality," Hans Hoogervorst, who stepped down in February, told an international audience of addiction experts. "The climate in Holland has changed," adds MP Anker. "People are weary of the happy-clappy liberalism of the 1970s." (Anker's party has proposed shutting down Amsterdam's famous red-light district and converting it into a "second Montmartre," with restaurants and art galleries.)

Drug expert de Loor also thinks the end of an era is near, though he's regretting it. "The mushroom ban does not stand alone," he says. "Within 10 years not a single coffee shop will be left in Holland." Anyone craving a legal taste of the Philosopher's Stone had best make his Amsterdam vacation plans now.